Breanna Lucci says that Men's underlying themes of grief, guilt, and trauma take a backseat to the patriarchal nightmare.
[THIS REVIEW REFERENCES DOMESTIC ABUSE, GASLIGHTING, AND MISOGYNY]
Alex Garland’s highly anticipated psychological folk horror Men (2022) is full of complex themes, unsettling dialogue, and jarring visual depictions. The film follows a young widow's journey through the tides of grief in a patriarchal society. Its build of subtle danger to mind-numbing fear is reminiscent of Midsommar (2019) and The Strangers (2008) before it morphs into something entirely different and unique. This vacation-gone-wrong thriller takes place in the English countryside, and while the rolling green hills and vined dancing trees are breathtaking, something sinister stirs within.
Jessie Buckley tackles the role of a complicated and troubled young woman as the film’s main protagonist. Grief-stricken by the horrifying death of her husband James (Paapa Eddiedu), Harper Marlowe (Buckley) rents a beautiful and idyllic cottage in the English countryside. She soon discovers that things are not what they appear and that the men in this town, portrayed by Rory Kinnear, are an imminent threat. Buckley’s portrayal of Harper is captivating. She encompasses much of the film alone in silent contemplation while a range of emotions cross her face. Harper is a woman yearning to escape her guilt. Kinnear depicts several characters with entirely different personalities and poisons to leverage, each embodying a toxic male archetype.
Garland relies heavily on symbolism to make his points. From Ulysses to ancient carvings on stone, a grab bag of different cultural icons is referenced throughout the film. When Harper arrives at the cottage, a stunning apple tree greets her in the front yard. She reaches up, plucking an apple from the “forbidden tree,” not unlike Eve in the Garden of Eden, before taking a hearty bite. The sound and score are critical in making this scene noteworthy. When the cottage owner Geoffrey (Kinnear) takes her on a tour of the house, he mentions how he watched her eat the forbidden fruit. There is an uncomfortable pause, and then he grins and says he’s joking. Religion has now entered the playing field. Pair that with him continually calling her Mrs. Marlowe and questioning where her husband is, seemingly stumped that she is staying alone. Their exchanges heavily foreshadow how all the men in the village react to her presence.
Gaslighting and domestic abuse play a role in the narrative of the relationship between James and Harper. When Harper confides the details of his death to the priest in Cotson, we find religion again intercepting what women “should” accept from their husbands. Harper must navigate not only the abusive relationship she came from but has to explain away her husband's absence repeatedly and justify it to other men. The undertones are clear and disturbing: men do not view women as equal but as objects to control.
The film’s cinematography by Rob Hardy and music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow build suspense delicately throughout. While Harper explores the nearby abandoned train tracks, she stumbles upon a tunnel with breathtaking foliage circling the entrance, welcoming her in. This is where Hardy, Salisbury, and Barrow shine. Upon entering the tunnel, Harper makes a sound echoing through the long chamber. Her joy is apparent as she times out more sounds, creating a crescendo of musical echoes.
The experience as a viewer is haunting because while Harper enjoys the melody, the camera is panning farther and farther away, giving us the impression that she is not alone. The echoes are loud and creepy, and they last longer than it feels like they should, which effectively had me on edge, waiting for something to happen. It feels natural when the male figure stands, surrounded only by the small light at the end of the tunnel, and begins running at her. This technique becomes a pattern throughout the film.
Of all the concepts explored throughout the film, very few answers are given. Everything is equally important and unimportant and entirely up for interpretation. Men is captivating, intriguing, disturbing, and upsetting. Garland uses gore to perpetuate the dynamics of men and women, depicting childbirth in the weirdest of ways, and he is unafraid to show it all. While there are stark generalizations made about men, I see what Garland is getting at: toxic masculinity presents itself in subtle ways. Although it’s often just below the surface, it is there.
Men is a slow burn that will leave audiences unsettled and uncomfortable. It's an unexpected folk horror film with an exhaustive list of moments depicting gender microaggressions, sexism, and misogyny. The underlying themes of grief, guilt, and trauma take a backseat to the patriarchal nightmare.
Men premiered theatrically on May 20, 2022. A digital on-demand release date has yet to be announced by A24.